Also Comes in Strange
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 Title: In Defense of Mistletoe
Author: Tania
Rating: PG
Pairing: Angel/Spike
Setting: Post NFA, clinging to life is hardest when you're already dead.
Words: 4,581

Christmas still existed in some places, or at least Spike thought it did. The whole world certainly could be all bleak and eternal night, but he liked to think that there were pockets of humanity where people still gathered for obscenely large dinners and the giving of gifts. Somewhere people were remembering what it was like before the gong had chimed the end of the world, just not here.

Quickly pulling the small, tattered calendar from his pocket, Spike stared at the number 25, small red letters reminding him of Victorian holidays laden with ribbon and spiced cider mulling over the woodstove. Flipping backwards through the tiny pages he checked to make sure that each day was crossed out, certain he hadn’t missed one. He fingered over the little crosses of blue and black, remembering too many days filled with wandering, patiently waiting for humanity’s next stage. Slipping the calendar back into his pocket, he looked around for some sign that he was not alone, but he was. Entirely alone save the occasional scurrying of vermin and flutter of birds somewhere in the darkness.

This had been Europe once. Germany he thought. He remembered it being greener, more lush. Everything now was dry, the rains having stopped years ago. The cold of winter had none of the visual joy that snow had brought with it back when the earth was alive and bustling. Freezing winds and the occasional morning frost were the only signs of the world they’d left behind. ‘They’, he thought with a smile. He missed referring to the mythical ‘they’. “They say you shouldn’t smoke”, he laughed, missing the habit. “They are trying to kill us”, “They started it, we have to finish it.’ Whoever ‘they’ had been, they weren’t anymore.

The darkness was beginning to get to him. It wasn’t that the sun never came out, it just couldn’t break through the haze. Days upon days of orange and purple tinted shadows followed him throughout the world. When the night came and trapped the acrid air within its folds, it no longer mattered where he was geographically. This was hell, although there was nothing private about it. The people were still here, most of them living in feral states, murderous, giving in to all manners of vice like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The entire planet seemed to have stared into the face of evil and decided to just stop trying to fight back, the odds too great. There hadn’t been any concerted effort to rebuild after the initial destruction either. The blast wave that started in Los Angeles and soon enveloped the continent had stopped trade cycles that had survived for centuries. In a matter of weeks the lines of communication went dead, sending the planet reeling back in time to a world where people were completely isolated and self-reliant. The problem being that communities had ceased to be capable of self-reliance long before they saw the flames of the apocalypse coming in their direction.

The only arguable benefit of the people giving up, laying down, and welcoming their own end was that it had only taken a few years for the vampires and other demons that preyed on humans to run out of food. Their mass numbers turned on each other, many believing that a sort of vampiric cannibalism would sustain them, but in the end most had withered to dust or slipped into madness. It had been months since Spike had seen another vampire. Of course, it had been almost that long since he’d met a human still in possession of his faculties.

Feeding had been a challenge as well. He wasn’t about to be responsible for picking off the last of a dying race, and blood banks were long since a thing of the past. He’d somehow managed to hold on and looked at the constant pain and rumbling in his veins as a sign that he was still alive. The assortment of animal life and nearly dead humans that had helped him survive this long would have made Harmony proud. Every night was ‘something surprise’ now.

Spike laughed at the thought of her. Picturing blonde hair flipping in a rush as she pouted and stormed from the room, Harm’s best angle. The light wood and chrome of his Wolfram & Hart offices seemed as absurd now as they had posh at the time. Thirty years hadn't even passed, and yet the span of a Dark Age stood between him and his memories. He barely recognized the image of himself he saw there in the past. The bleached hair had been gone within weeks, that first night of fighting destroying any shred of vanity he had left. His nails were now worn and brittle, his body strong but thin as he’d ever been. Even the way he walked had changed. No longer the bravado that came from walking down a city street, knowing you owned it. Decades of trudging through forests and debris-strewn cities had forced him to move with caution, to walk deeper. Limbs ever ready for a battle to the death, constantly aware that if he were to fall there was no one to pick him up.

Spike looked to the trees above him, leafless and drab against the night sky. Their branches wilting towards the ground as if the draughts had sapped them of everything worth living for. The forest was a vast expanse of human inconsequence. Signs of lives once built around the wood as though it was the central nervous system of entire villages. Rusted tools and trucks lay in ruins every so often, the ghosts of lost civilizations. The disappearance of the forest’s one-time masters had gone unnoticed here.

“Merry Christmas,” he whispered to the empty air.

Walking on, Spike noticed the ground beneath his feet was harder than usual. This had been a road once. Looking into the black he saw the outline of a small cluster of houses breaking out in a small clearing. One of the last pockets of life, maybe? Or possibly just another reminder of a world that no longer existed.

The windows were missing from most of the buildings. Doors had burned, leaving only the brick shells they had once protected. Inside one of the smaller outbuildings he found a frayed wool blanket, most likely woven to cover a horse. Few other signs of life had endured. Rancid jars of fruits sat on shelves covered with dust, a few metal tools were tucked into corners, a well-bucket with broken bindings, and the cloth in his hands were all that remained of what was most likely a thriving little village at one point.

Gathering a few pieces of shelving and bits of fallen wood into the blanket, Spike threw it over his shoulder. Smiling at the grotesque parody of St. Nick bringing toys to children, he followed what remained of the path between buildings and found a small house at the end of the row that still had a front door and a couple of windows. It would be as good a place as any to spend the night, and if the flue wasn’t too damaged he’d hopefully be able to make a fire that would last until morning.

Spike had to make one trip outside to shake the chimney, sending a cloud of soot and rodent nests into the hearth, but it was serviceable. The flames, once a sign of mayhem and destruction, were now the most beautiful thing he saw in his day. Keeping the chill at bay, he wrapped himself in the blanket, pulling a few splinters from the weave and tossing them into the fire. Curling himself up on the floor, Spike watched the fire crackle. Maybe if he got very lucky the smoke rising into the air would beckon to someone outside, inviting them in. Not that Spike had any idea what language they would speak if they were to show up, but he had honed his pantomime skills pretty well over the years. Drifting off to sleep, he began the dream he had so often: the world anew, cities rebuilt, and him kicking ass at Charades.

***

The morning had an almost day-like quality to it. The sky was a shade of purple that implied blue behind the haze. Spike made a mental note; this was a sign of progress. Taking the little calendar from his coat and the bit of pencil he crossed out the 25 and turned away from the window. Boxing Day was nice as well. He looked around the room trying to spot a gift worth giving himself. There was precious little in the way of furniture, scavengers having picked it mostly clean. Standing up and shaking himself free of the horse blanket, Spike ran his hands over the sideboard that stood against the wall. Pulling one of the drawers open he found a couple of pieces of linen, once considered elegant, their lacey edges were hardly practical now. Further searching in the drawers and the legless desk rested against another wall turned up two pencils, one pen with dried ink, a faded magazine in a language he couldn’t read showing the latest in farm equipment, and a small length of red ribbon.

Spike shoved his little haul into one of the deep pockets of his coat and threw the last piece of wood onto the fire. Opening the door just enough to make sure the haze wasn’t thin enough to let the sun’s fatal rays through, he stepped outside, sighing at the cold. Fallen branches weren’t hard to find, the Poplars were only stoic to a point in the face of such a dearth of rain. Eventually they crumbled to the ground during a wind storm or under the weight of masses of mistletoe, parasitically clinging to branches and sapping what little moisture remained in the ground. Spike respected the plant’s ability to survive and put on its winter show even in a dead forest. The green leaves painted an eerie picture against the dingy gray bark of its host, giving the appearance of life where everything else whispered death.

Gathering an armful of branches, Spike went back inside the house, breaking the longer boughs into manageable pieces. Once inside though, his gaze kept going to the window. Staring up at the jumble of white berries and small leaves, feeling something of a kindred spirit with its small branches. If it lived long enough the mistletoe would topple even the tallest of trees. It just had to wait until the moment was right.

Spike opened the door once more, taking his pocketknife out; he cut a few inches of the plant from the tree, tying the spindly branches together with the ribbon. Once inside the house he searched each room until he found a thumbtack. Taking his little treasure back into the hearth room, he pinned it to the low rafter in the center of the room. It was a strange gesture, adding a bit of jolliness to the otherwise dank room, but the symbolism outweighed the silliness. They were a pair, the vampire bush and the vampire, now they just had to bide their time.

***

Each day Spike would go for a walk, choosing a different direction each day, or night when the light was strong enough to keep him inside. He had explored each of the four houses nearest his hideaway. He’d managed to find two chairs, an end table, and several more blankets. Scrounging through the outbuildings he gathered whatever he thought might be of use and brought it to his place. The room with the broken window served as his storage area, too cold to leave the door open most days he would only venture in there to drop his new treasures off or to search through the old.

Months went by and he began to think of the little cottage as his home. Spike wasn’t the model of a handy man, but he’d managed to piecemeal the place together, mending what he could and shuttering what he couldn’t. He barely staved off hunger by hunting the forest for anything foolish enough to still live there. Marking his calendar each morning, fearing the day he reached the last page and had to start filling in the dates himself. He was just grateful to have found it in the first place. Would he remember leap years and which months had thirty days when 2035 arrived and he used the last page?

Nearly thirty years since it had begun, or ended, he wasn’t sure which. During the quiet hours when the wind died down, Spike missed the simple things he’d taken for granted during the first hundred and fifty years of his life. Things like knowing what his friends were doing on any given day, knowing he had friends. The touches of a lover, the thrill of a fight, even the suspense of a hunt. In a world with so few people the quiet was all he had, and it was slowly making him insane. He missed America and wondered what had happened to those trapped there at the center of the war when the planes stopped flying and the ships stopped sailing.

He almost said the name in his head. Spike hadn’t let himself even think of him in years, hadn’t said his name aloud in much longer. Whiling away the hours in relative warmth compared to the rest of the world, Spike missed a lot of people and wished they were with him, but the one thought he tried to keep far from his mind was where Angel had gone when the smoke cleared. Spike never saw the dust, never felt the pang he always thought he would if Angel had died. There was never anything, just a call to meet him on the next block if they made it through the fight and a nod to those who would not be joining them. And then the world had gone black and he was alone with a sword in his hand and an army at his heels.

There was no point wiping the tears. He’d kept himself from reliving that day for too long, marveled that he’d locked it inside for so many years. He didn’t weep, but Spike did mourn what he’d lost, what they’d all lost. His skin crawled with the same feeling he’d had when thinking of any of them; Angel, Drusilla, even Darla. They were his family for a hundred years, and now that he’d been in solitude for a year, never speaking aloud except when flushing rabbits out of their warrens or birds from the rafters above him, he missed hearing their voices.

Spike fell to sleep in front of the fire as he did each night, watching the billows of smoke rise into the chimney. The calendar he clutched in his fingers pressing him on, dreaming of a better tomorrow.

***

The crash had awoken Spike out of a dead sleep. The ground beneath him vibrated and filled his body with a dread he’d forgotten he was capable of. Looking around the room, Spike quickly jumped up and ran to the cold room, tossing about bits of furniture and knick-knacks until he found an axe. He’d lost anything resembling a weapon ages ago, and the axe had a certain futile irony to it. Anything capable of making the valley boom like that would see his little axe and laugh, but sometimes pretense was enough to spur on bravery.

Peering out the door everything looked clear. The sun hadn’t yet risen and the sky was still a shade of black, orange just beginning to tint the edge of the horizon. Spike inched his way outside, expecting a blow to come at any moment. There was nothing. He moved along the small clearing of a road he’d made between the houses, cautious as he went. After a few minutes he let his shoulders relax, a fight didn’t seem likely and there were no war machines at the gate. It wasn’t until he reached the end of the row that he saw the cause of the calamity.

The mistletoe had finally won. A giant poplar had toppled the outbuilding he had first explored. The green boughs of mistletoe spilled out in a web of triumph, covering the debris of the building.

“Right then, awake now.” Spike said to the glorious winner in the game of survival.

Turning back down the road, Spike laughed loud and hard. He really was alone, but he had heard the tree fall and it had made a noise, so there was his proof that life went on. As he walked he tucked the axe under his arm and pulled the calendar from his pocket and crossed off the day. The red letters greeted him from the last page of the booklet, reminding him that the end of time was almost here. Christmas again and after this week the last calendar on earth, or so Spike had always assumed, would close.

***

The fire was warm inside the house. The excitement of the tree toppling had almost let Spike forget how bone chilling it was outside. Warm enough to unbutton his coat, Spike pulled a chair over to sit in front of the fire and hummed a Christmas tune to himself for a moment before stopping. Something wasn’t right. The fire was too large, too large for him not having added wood before racing outside.

“In defense of mistletoe,” a voice said, startling Spike from his seat, “it doesn’t know to do anything but survive.”

Reeling around, Spike suddenly wished he hadn’t grown up in a time where fainting was socially acceptable behavior. He didn’t know whether to gasp, cry, or scream when Angel walked around the corner at that same leisurely pace he’d used as long as Spike had known him. How had he managed to stay so large? Had he always been this large?

“How the…”

Words escaped him, even on days of his most intense dementia, Spike never let himself believe they’d be in a room together again, and even on those rare occasions he had wondered if it was possible, he didn’t think it would be like this. A quiet morning in a geographic nowhere was hardly the sword-crossing blaze of glory he figured would frame their reunion. The moment was too still, too serene to be familiar and Spike found himself completely out of sorts.

Angel nodded to the chair Spike had abandoned, pulling the only other seat in the room up close to the fire for himself. He sat with an aged weariness, the cool exterior vanishing for just a flash as he fell into the chair with a sigh.

“Wasn’t easy,” Angel said, anticipating Spike’s questions, “There are still a few seers who aren’t afraid to talk to me, but by the time I found a way to get over here you were long gone from England.”

“Thought they might be able to hold out,” Spike answered, his words coming slowly.

“They did for a while, a few years.” It wasn’t a while, it was a blink.

“Left after the reactors went off in the east, didn’t make much sense to stick around and watch them all die from the radiation.” Spike stared at the fire, trying to block the images of Technicolor clouds filling the sky.

“It had settled to the Orange Days by the time I made it over,” Angel nodded.

“What year?” Spike asked, pulling the calendar from his pocket and flipping back to the year of the last catastrophic explosions.

Angel watched Spike’s movements, moving the chairs closer together when Spike made no movement to hand the precious calendar over. “I think it was 2018, might have been nineteen. Cruise ship that had been out when the worst of the fighting happened. It took awhile for them to find enough fuel to make it all the way across, but they sure did it.”

“For all the good it does,” Spike sneered, shocked by the venom in his own voice.

“Does some good, there were almost a thousand people on board. They’re settling in North Africa, still pretty warm there, a bit of rain every now and then.” Angel leaned back in the chair, hints of a smile curling on his lips. “It’s the first sign I’ve seen of them coming together, working towards something.”

“That’s good,” Spike agreed. It was hard to admit that it was what he’d been waiting for, holding steady, waiting for a sign that the world would go on. “And it’s…the fighting…”

“I think they got what they wanted.”

“Haven’t been back for more? Really think Wolfram & Hart just stopped?”

“Of course not, but what would be the point now? I don’t think the plan was ever to kill the human race off completely, what would they feed on?”

“Sodding vampires, like a bunch of mistletoe they are.”

They shared in a laugh. Spike sighed at the feeling, pausing to look at Angel, measure him up a bit. The hair was a little longer, but then so was his. The clothes weren’t designer but still managed to look better than any he’d seen in years. Angel always did stay cleaner than any of them, the muck seeming to take one look at him and decide it’d be better off elsewhere.

“It’s good to see you,” he finally admitted.

“You too,” Angel agreed, patting Spike on the shoulder.

Spike was suddenly embarrassed by the drab room around them. He’d been here a year and had barely taken the time to dust or set the furniture upright. At least the roof was sound and there weren’t too many drafts. He started to make an apology, hospitality being one of the things he missed about humanity the most.

“It’s good, Spike,” Angel said, looking around. “Although I didn’t notice a supermarket.”

Spike laughed again, enjoying how easily it came when he wasn’t alone.

“No, they seem to have all gone under.”

“You must be hungry then,” Angel pulled a jar from his coat and handed it to Spike. The thick red liquid swirled around the glass, pulling Spike from his embarrassment and filling him with a blood lust he rarely let himself remember.

“Yes please,” he whispered, yanking the jar from Angel’s hand and downing half the jar in one gulp.

***

There were many questions between them and the night and most of the next day were spent catching up, skirting around those neither of them wanted to ask, that neither wanted answers to. The blood Angel had brought, two full jars that Spike decided to be grateful and unquestioning about, was gone by sunrise. Angel traveled light but did have another blanket to add to Spike’s makeshift bed by the fire, adding another level of comfort to their seclusion.

As the haze thickened throughout the day, Spike gave Angel the grand tour of his little oasis. There wasn’t much to see, Spike having taken anything worth saving into his house or the shed that sat behind it. Angel helped him pull a window from one of the houses and put it into the catchall room, closing off the last gaping opening that allowed the cold of night to fill the house.

“People could live here now,” Spike said. “It’s not much, but it’d do.”

“You’re planning to stay here?” Angel asked as they set the old broken frame onto the ground.

Spike hadn’t really thought about how long he would stay here. He hadn't planned on staying a full year but as he settled in he couldn't think of a much better place to go. There wasn’t much left to explore on foot that would make it worth coming back here each night, but the thought of leaving, wandering until he found a group to join or another house to fix up wasn’t exciting him to start packing either.

“Not sure,” he said, following Angel around the house and back inside. “Better than some of the crypts I’ve lived in, but…”

“Lonely?”

“Yeah, is a bit of that.” Spike threw a piece of wood on the fire, more out of habit than necessity. “Don’t much fancy going back to Africa, this feels more like home I guess.”

“They’ll start building cities again.” Angel said in that matter-of-fact prophetic voice Spike hated.

“Neither of us have ever had to wait out a Dark Age before.”

“No, but I’ve seen plague and times when we thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel too. We’ve both been to hell…

“Or at least a Hellmouth.” Spike agreed.

“We’ll make it.”

“Since when are we a ‘we’?”

Angel laughed.

“Sorry, been a while since I had uninvited guests.”

“Wasn’t sure if I’d be welcome as one.” Angel’s eyes lowered for just a second, but Spike caught the meaning.

Lifting his shirt to expose his thin chest, Spike looked away from Angel, “Still dead as a doornail.”

“Not sure why I expected anything else”

“Cheer up, mate,” Spike poked at the fire, which had dimmed as though the oxygen were being sucked from the room and not just the life. “Yer ol’ prophecy said something about being after the End of Days, yeah? Looks to me like we’re just getting started.”

Spike was glad to see that Angel hadn’t lost his penchant for melodrama. His silence was comforting and brought back a spark that Spike had almost let die. Cheering up Angel was like giving CPR, the act of goading had always kept the life in both of them, and even after thirty years they hardly skipped a beat.

“We’ll use the mistletoe defense, there was nothing to do but keep on living,” Spike stood up, stretching himself long and standing to his full height, the weight being alone had set on him lifting, making survival a little easier to bear.

“Here?” Angel asked.

“Good a place as any. Your humans have given me a bit of a plan.”

“What’s that?”

“Lots of bits and pieces of machinery around, we might be able to find enough petrol to get something moving, see if we can’t round up a few troops.” He pulled out the calendar, a small sigh escaping as he crossed off the last day.

“That could be a plan,” Angel agreed, “and you’re going to be the ringleader?”

“Oh no, you’re the bossman.” Spike smiled, taking Angel’s hand and lifting him out of the chair. “It’s time to go to work.”

“This is all sounding vaguely familiar.”

“Nope,” Spike said, shaking his head. “We’re starting fresh, from scratch.”

“A world built in your image? A bit maniacal isn’t it?”

“Not my image, yours. A world where all that matters is today, trying.”

“But what’s today?” Angel asked.

“Time to start over, a new beginning.”

Spike threw the calendar into the fire, watching the pages curl for just a moment before taking Angel’s arm and pulling him closer.

“Fresh?” Angel asked, holding his ground.

“I thought you’d never notice.”

"The Mistletoe Defense?" Angel asked, looking to the faded red ribbon and dust covered bough above them.

"Absolutely," Spike said, following his gaze.

Spike was the first to step forward, but Angel followed suit, their lips meeting tentatively at first and then in a more determined fashion. As the past burned before them and hope for the future blazed within them, time stood still. The work just beginning.

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